A couple of years ago, there was a bit of a trend to do instructional videos on levels of mastery in a certain field. I’m sure that several of these were made for coffeemaking though I haven’t noticed any. I specifically won’t search for those before posting this as I don’t want to be influenced. Coffeemaking is precisely the kind of activity which leads to extremely opinionated dissent about “the one-true-best-way to express the very essence of the one thing that coffee is all about anywhere in the World and for the rest of time”.
So… this is just my take. Based on a fair bit of experience. Still limited by being just this one coffee geek. 🤓
Level 1: Fresh Grind
Grinding fresh is the start of the journey. As computer scientists are fond to say, this is “Step 0”.
You could have the best coffee beans in the world, the best equipment, all other variables under control… a stale grind won’t let you discover the depth of coffee experiences. Conversely, you could have the worst beans, the worst equipment, no control whatsoever… a fresh grind will help you gain something really important.
The practical reason is that volatile aromas disappear within minutes after you grind coffee beans. Those aromas are a bigger part of the coffee drinking experience than you might expect or consciously realize. Our sense of smell (olfaction) is very deep in its emotional connections.
So, grinding fresh is a “nose-opening experience”.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter which grinder you use. The cheapest is a blade grinder (brandnames associated with hardware stores make a lot of these). They’re technically spice grinders, but that doesn’t matter so much, at this point. It’s an inexpensive way to get started on your trip to making your own coffee experiences at home.
There’s a very interesting kind of device which isn’t that much more expensive than a blade grinder and actually gets you a very high quality grind: a handmill. Very specifically, the Hario Slim. You can grind very finely with it, which can be an advantage for Turkish/Arabic/Armenian-style coffee. It also works really well with most brewing methods. And it’s almost silent. The main issue is that it takes a whole lot of time to grind enough coffee for a cup. At some level, though, that can be an advantage. You get to experience coffeemaking as a slower process. It’s almost like an exercise. The kind of thing you might do while listening to a podcast or watching something interesting.
If you’re ready to buy an electric burr grinder, the challenge is in choosing the right one. Somewhat surprisingly, the Capresso Infinity has become something of a classic. It’s a “run of the mill” (!) grinder. It’s not fantastic, but it does job. In its price range, it’s not a bad purchase. Sure, you probably shouldn’t make espresso with it.
Thing is: my strong advice is to refrain from making espresso at home.
More on this in a future post, I’m sure.
Level 2: Roast Freshness
Very much related to grinding coffee beans just before using them is getting coffee beans which were roasted very recently. Simply put, the large majority of coffee beans people get are very likely to be completely stale. It’s quite possible that you’ve never experienced a coffee roast at the right level of freshness. So, getting fresh beans has a high chance of opening up your coffee experiences.
Similar to a fresh grind, there’s a very simple logic behind this: coffee beans expel CO2 for seven to ten days after roasting, prevent oxidation. Once oxidation hits, the staling process means that you lose a whole lot of the aromas which make coffee so pleasant. Those aren’t necessarily as volatile as the ones liberated by grinding. But they’re quite important.
The obvious way to get fresh beans is to buy them at a roastery, if you have one locally or get one to ship beans quickly. Nowadays, several coffee roasters put roast dates on their bags, which is actually a very good sign. So, depending on where you live, it might not be too hard to get freshly roasted coffee beans.
In my experience, the most interesting way to get freshly roasted coffee beans is to roast them yourself. Something that people working in cafés don’t realize is that coffee homeroasting is a really efficient way to deepen your home coffeemaking experiences. Again because of the link between olfaction and emotions, experiencing all the phases in a coffeebean’s roasting and degassing process gets ingrained in your sensory memory. Even without noticing it, drinking coffee made with beans you’ve roasted gives you a much deeper appreciation of what’s involved in that flavour and aroma profile. Your conscious brain might not pick it up but something in you gets an attachment to some sensations you’re having with that coffee.
Coffee homeroasting can be quite easy and cheap. For the longest time, my preferred method was with the kind of hot air popcorn popper you frequently find in a garage sale or thrift store. A fun method is called “heatgun & dogbowl”. You can even just use a baking sheet in an oven.
At this level, it doesn’t really matter which roasting method you use. You’re learning something valuable.
I mentioned degassing early. It’s not much of a concern with roastery- or storebought beans but it does become relatively important when homeroasting. Basically, degassing is so intense within the first 24 hours or so after roasting that making coffee with beans fresh out of the roaster can be challenging. At a physical level, you can notice the effect in a large amount of “blooming”: CO2 expelled from grounds make for a kind of froth in the water. A few coffeemaking methods are somewhat forgiving of this intense blooming (AeroPress comes to mind). Even then, the expulsion of CO2 has effects all the way to the cup. I actually haven’t read enough on this particular topic to understand all the effects degassing may have. In fact, I haven’t heard convincing enough statements from coffee researchers to feel confident that we’ve got this whole degassing thing fully figured out. In this sense, it’s a bit like the Maillard reaction which is widely-known yet complex enough to not be widely-understood.
At a fairly basic level (we’re just at level 2 of 7!), the effect of degassing just means that you should probably wait a day or two after roasting coffee beans before you use them to make coffee.
Level 3: Bean Quality
If you get freshly-roasted coffee beans and you grind them just before making coffee with them, you’re already getting way deeper in coffee experiences than the average person, including your average restaurant or coffeeshop. Even if you use low-quality beans, you’re getting a deeper experience than most people do.
Which means that you’re ready to invest in high quality beans.
And those don’t have to be super expensive. Coffee is a low-cost luxury, in many ways. If you homeroast, you often pay green coffee beans at 50% of the price of roasted beans. Though you’ll lose 15–20% of the weight in the roasting process (there’s quite a bit of water in a green coffee bean), homeroasting is still less expensive than buying roasted beans of the same quality.
However, you need to be aware that high quality coffee beans are probably double the price (or more) of those beans you get in a supermarket. Really worth it, though. Very expensive coffee (Kopi Luwak, Blue Mountain…) typically isn’t worth it. There are some amazing beans which are incredibly expensive and very much worth it… if roasted, brewed, and served in exactly the right way. At Level 3, they’re not your concern.
An important part of the difference in quality (and price) comes from a distinction between two different species of genus Coffea: arabica and canephora (aka robusta). While there are reasons to use a small amount of robusta coffee in Italian-style espresso blends, robusta is the lowgrade easy-to-grow commodity coffee which has pretty much no place in home coffeemaking yet drives down the price of coffee around the World. The story goes that so-called “Fair-Trade coffee” (don’t get me started on this) became important because of a glut of coffee from Vietnam. If you notice that you’ve probably never noticed coffee beans labeled as coming from Vietnam, it’s because it isn’t really about origin. Vietnam is among the biggest coffee producers in the World and, unless things have changed very recently, it only produces cheap robusta beans.
So, an easy way to get decent-quality to excellent coffee beans is to get what we tend to call “single origin”: beans which carry the name of a country, region, or farm. That’s in contrast with a blend, which may have beans from all over the place and quite possibly some robusta. Sure, there are some very good blends out there. I’d argue that using blends at this level is less likely to deepen your coffee appreciation in terms of home coffeemaking. Blending is quite a craft and it can be an art. Blends are more about consistency than enhancing the experience. Some of the best blends are very characteristic. Works really well for a local café. Some blends really remind you of that one place. That’s all well and good and you might use that as part of your home coffeemaking. It’s just that it also limits you to one coffee experience. If you’ve come this far, you probably want to explore more than this one coffee experience.
Which leads me to…
Level 4: Taste
Once you’ve played enough with freshly-roasted quality coffee beans that you grind just before making coffee at home, it’s time to train your palate and tastebuds and nose. So, taste diverse coffees, take notes, find ways to describe experiences that you enjoy as well as those you dislike, share your experience with friends, try coffee in diverse cafés and coffeeshops…
Expand your horizons while documenting the process.
Sensory experiences, like emotions, take on a new reality once you name them. Coffee tasting workshops are quite interesting for this. Typically, a workshop facilitator will encourage you to come up with your own descriptors before you compare notes with someone else. You might be surprised to realize that the descriptors coming from the roaster often don’t match your experience at all. And that’s actually a cool thing. This is about your tastebuds, nose, and palate. The “right” answer is the one which helps you experience something deeper.
Something fairly uncontroversial within the coffee world with which I’m most familiar and very controversial outside of it: it’s important to taste coffee on its own, without milk, sugar, syrup, etc. Even if you don’t enjoy it at first, it’s probably the only way to train yourself to taste coffee instead of having a taste for a coffee-based beverage or, in many cases, a liquid dessert with some generic coffee flavour. Sure, this might sound like snobbery. It’s really about a pleasurable experience, an enhancement to your life. In many ways, this is when coffee is less a vehicle for caffeine than the source of joy. Otherwise, the most efficient way is probably to get a caffeinated softdrink, which will taste exactly the same every single time you have it. Very hard to do with coffee. Very easy and cheap with a softdrink. On its own, coffee is pretty much free of calories, fat, etc. Now, depending on your condition, coffee might contain other things which aren’t good for you, personally. Those don’t suddenly disappear if you add things to your coffee, right? And if you’ve read this far, you’re probably ok with drinking coffee, at least in moderation. There might be dietary reasons to drink black coffee instead of drinking coffee with milk, non-dairy milk alternatives, sugar, etc.
So, really, at this level, it’s pretty important for you to at least try coffee for what it is. Sure it’s an acquired taste, because of the relationship we have to bitterness. Still, once you go over that hump and you’re able to drink coffee without “additives”, you’ll experience something pretty important.
Café owners and baristas have often commended me for having a great palate. The fact that I was never a smoker probably has a big impact, here. People probably say this because of my habit of coming up with very unique descriptors. An example is sponge toffee (which may or may not be known widely). There’s actually a much more specific type of candy which probably doesn’t exist anymore and that most people haven’t known that I often taste in coffee (it was shaped like little tools). That’s pretty idiosyncratic in that most people don’t taste the same thing.
Stonefruit/drupe is much more common as a descriptor. A bitter almond kind of taste. Maybe even cherry pit. It’s a range of flavour experiences instead of that one specific thing, and it contributes a lot to the overall coffee drinking, when it’s noticeable.
Of course, there are many flavours and aromas that people associate with coffee, often coming from the roast profile more than from the bean itself. This is where you get the chocolate notes, the roasted nuts, the caramel, the smokiness, maybe even some of the winey character… Roast profiles are quite interesting, partly thanks to the aforementioned Maillard reaction as well as to pyrolysis. Beer brewers enjoy pointing out that beer is pretty much liquid bread, which is quite accurate in terms of the ingredients and fermentation. Roast profiles are where coffee (or brewing malt, for that matter) meet a lot of the flavour notes one might associate with bread crust or toasted bread.
Then, there are all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle berry flavours you may get from high quality coffee made exactly the right way at the right time. Typically, it’s the case with “dry-processed” beans (aka “naturals”) at a relatively light roast. It’s the kind of thing which will completely disappear in a blend, in a dark roast, in a stale bean, or in a stale grind.
Something similar can be said about other fruity, floral, and herbal aromas or flavours. Which is where commercial roasters tend to find their main descriptors.
You don’t necessarily need to get into all of these things, at this level. What’s important is that you train yourself by tasting things in relation to your coffeemaking. Something you might notice is that, contrary to popular belief, coffee can fairly easily taste what beans smell like. Very few people dislike the smell of coffee but many people have had negative experiences when a coffee doesn’t taste at all like it smelled. Much of that had to do with the coffeemaking process.
Level 5: Experiment with Coffeemaking Methods
So far, apart from a passing comment about the AeroPress’s “blooming forgiveness” and a controversial statement about espresso, I didn’t say anything about coffeemaking methods. That’s partly because you can get very deep coffee experience with just about any coffeemaking method.
Once you’ve trained your sensory apparatus to appreciate diverse coffee experiences, you’re ready to start experimenting with diverse ways to make coffee.
“Drip coffee” is rather interesting as it’s been making a comeback. At the beginning of the 21st Century, a movement got started to get very deep into coffee experiences. Partly because low-quality drip coffee (i.e. “filter”) was the standard in the United States at the time, many people in that movement shunned drip coffee altogether and it was kind of a status thing to dismiss those who only drink drip coffee. And while filter coffee can be a very sad experience, we now realize that it’s quite easy to have very pleasurable experiences with drip coffee. Indeed, under the name “pourover”, a certain type of single-serving drip coffee has become a bit of a thing in the 2010s… Those filter-holders you put above a cup are inexpensive and easy to use at home. While the V60 has become the “household name, there are many of those cones around which do the same job fairly well. If you’ve reached level 4 with this kind of brewing method, you’re well on your way… and you should probably try something else.
This blogpost was prompted by someone sharing experiences with the AeroPress. Apart from being ok with extremely fresh coffeebeans going through intense degassing, the AeroPress is a cool device to do some experiments. It’s inexpensive, easy-to-use, easy-to-clean, and it can help produce what people might call “a clean cup” (without obvious flaws). Mainly, depending on how you use it, you can get “flavour clarity”. Another way to get that is through the Clover, an elaborate (and expensive) coffeemaking machine which made a relatively big splash in the mid-to-late 2000s before being bought by Starbucks. You can get coffee from a Clover in some special Starbucks location (I think they’re called “Reserve” or some such). Siphon brewing also had a bit of a resurgence in the mid-2000s, partly because of the flavour clarity (and largely because it looks neat).
The French Press does a very different thing: it makes for a full-bodied cup with a very distinct flavour profile. It’s the opposite of flavour clarity. The best term for the flavour profile is probably “muddy”, though it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, “mud cake” can be pretty good, right? And French Press coffee can feel just right in several occasions. If it’s been your main brewing method, one thing to try is to limit the steeping time and pour the coffee away from the French Press as soon as the immersion is over. That might heighten the experience.
When I discussed grinders, I didn’t expand upon grind consistency. It’s quite important with some brewing methods and it doesn’t matter that much with others. Switching from a blade grinder (which produces an extremely inconsistent grind) to a burr grinder will improve your drip coffee, but the difference is nowhere as significant as going from store-ground to freshly ground coffee.
French Press is one of the coffeemaking methods which benefit the most from a very consistent grind. That might be counterintuitive but it’s very easy to understand. As most people who use a French Press probably realize, you need the grind to be pretty coarse, as smaller particles will get in your cup. What’s probably a bit less obvious is that you’re also getting extremely fine particles, which remain in suspension in the cup, giving you this huge body and thick mouthfeel. Haven’t read the studies (or done robust experiments myself) but I’ve heard that most coffee drinkers care more about body than taste. There’s a number of cases where that makes a lot of sense, including with lifelong smokers.
There are many other brewing methods. My favourite one is the Italian-style stovetop Moka pot, which has remained pretty much unchanged since Bialetti’s 1931 invention. There was a time when people really misunderstood the Moka pot and thought it could only produce burnt coffee. While it’s possible to produce burnt coffee with a Moka pot (and I’ve been distracted enough to have burnt my coffee on occasion), it’s quite easy to make coffee in a Moka pot without burning it. The very simple idea is that you need the right temperature.
Speaking of which…
Level 6: Get Geeky
Once you’ve experimented with different coffeemaking methods (and you had already trained your “sensory apparatus” to identify very diverse coffee experiences), it might make sense to get into measuring things.
Temperature is a pretty big one. It’d probably be one of the first levels of teamaking. Coffee is much more forgiving than tea in terms of temperature. It still does make a significant difference, which depends largely on your coffeemaking method. In my experience, espresso is probably the most sensitive to temperature. Some roasters even refuse to sell their beans to cafés where they make espresso at the wrong temperature for that bean. It’s not that there’s one ideal temperature to make espresso. It’s that the extraction process varies a lot in terms of temperature and a certain bean will “express itself” more appropriately at a certain temperature instead of another. Making espresso is really finicky. Which is a large part of the reason I tend to advise against making espresso at home.
At the opposite end, cold brew (especially toddy-style) is the outlier where every principle about water temperature in coffeemaking goes out the window. A large part of the reason some coffee professionals have been very vocal in loudly decrying the Chemex brewer is that it makes it very difficult to control temperature. Experimenting with different temperatures for drip coffee is fairly similar to teabrewing. In fact, you could use the same type of kettle for both, though there’s something to be said about gooseneck kettles making it easy to pour water over coffee grounds in the most consistent way.
So you might already be thinking about a thermometer and a special kettle… Getting geeky with gear.
Another useful tool would be a precise scale. In fact, I’d say that a precise scale is probably more useful for most home coffeemaking than a thermometer or special kettle. The geek part isn’t just about measuring, it’s about documenting your process. The same way you were documenting your tasting experiences in Level 4, you’re now documenting your coffeemaking processes. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details… and it’s probably a useful thing to do for a little while.
Chronometers are a classic fixture in those cafés which are part of the aforementioned movement which started in the early 21st Century. It can be quite useful in home coffeemaking as well. You likely have a device which makes it easy to time events, so it’s probably not necessary to get new gear just for that. Apart from espresso making (with the classic 25s shot), the coffeemaking method which probably improves the most from measurements in time is the French Press. While it’s a very long immersion/steep time compared to other coffeemaking methods, there’s a strong limit at which things become unpleasant. Siphon brewing is similar with the added factor that it’s quite a bit more involved and becomes something of a ritual or ceremony, which might be the reason it took off in some parts of Japan early in the 21st Century. Because of the problems with maintaining a temperature, as I’ve mentioned previously, Chemex brewing is rather finicky in terms of timing. Pourover methods are a bit more forgiving because of the steep time and water amount.
Once you’ve measured things like temperature, mass, and time, you can go a long way with things like pH, total dissolved solids, moisture content, minerals, etc. As with any geeky hobby, there isn’t really a limit to what you can measure and how precise you can get. There’s probably a steep curve in diminishing returns, as elaborate measurements are unlikely to result in improved coffee experiences. At this point, though, the measurement process might be rewarding in its own way. You really don’t have to get so deeply into measuring everything to become recognized as a coffeegeek. In fact, there’s a time at which all these measurements reveal themselves for they really are, in terms of coffeemaking at home: a way to develop your own approach to coffee.
Level 7: Make Coffee Your Own
I’m not typically one to make martial arts analogy (though my hunch is that the whole “seven levels” thing might come from there). So I don’t really know which term would fit for the highest level of coffeemaking mastery in this little model I made. What I do know is that it’s equivalent to what I’ve been calling “appropriation”. As with technological appropriation, the deepest layer is about make it your own… and making it appropriate to your context.
To visit an uncomfortable place for a second: this is also about cultural appropriation. Coffee originally comes from a specific part of the World (present-day Yemen, basically) and it’s traveled a lot. It’s now produced in many parts of the Global South, where it’s a cashcrop and possibly a way of life. Among coffee professionals, a “Trip to Origin” is about traveling to a coffee-producing region and getting deep into what coffee means in that context. The labour issues remain quite challenging despite (and even because of) things like “Fair Trade” and other (hopefully-wellmeaning yet sadly misled) approaches to “tell the Rest of the World how to work”. Once you’ve spent enough time caring for coffeebeans, caring for the humans who made those beans into what they are is a pretty humbling process. While I personally haven’t done fieldwork in a coffee-producing region, it’s obvious to me from interactions with people who have that it’s a lifechanging experience.
To me, this final level of mastery, competency, expertise, experience is mostly about making coffee part of your life, in the way which feels right. Maybe it’s about inventing a new device for coffeemaking. Or perfecting a specific method. Or holding “cupping sessions” and coffee tasting workshops. Or teaching your friends about diverse coffee experiences. Or opening a coffee coop.
Or blogging about coffeemaking.
It’s all good as long as it fits your life, your values, your tastes.